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Cecilia Fire Thunder and the Oglala Sioux Women’s Quiet Revolution: Sexual Abuse, Domestic Violence, Women’s Sovereignty

 Cecilia Fire Thunder

Cecilia Fire Thunder believes that stopping sexual violence, domestic assault and incest — and caring for its victims –needs to rise to the top of the political agenda on the Pine Ridge reservation.  Today she is being impeached.

Cecilia Fire Thunder’s impeachment hearing was scheduled for today.  She was suspended as chairman of the Oglala Sioux Nation following her public statement that despite South Dakota’s abortion ban, abortions could be performed on reservation land.  The reason the tribal council gave for suspending her was that she had solicited donations for the Sacred Choices Wellness Center intending to offer abortions there.  Fire Thunder says she never solicited those donations and I believe her.  I think some of them probably were sent to her in response to posts written by white feminists bloggers. 

According to an article published on June 28 in the Indian Country Times, the actual conflicts and issues around these events have been obscured by feminist bloggers and by the Christian Right as well.  I urge you to carefully read this article for yourself.  According to Fire Thunder and other women present during the interview with Indian Country Times, 87 percent of women on the Oglala Sioux reservation have been sexually abused, many of them as children.  Fire Thunder calls the molestation and incest of children “sexual deviancy,” rape the “ultimate subjugation” and says the extent of the problem on the reservation is revealed by women in drug and alcohol treatment, many of whom describe bearing the children of their male relatives.  She says abortion rights, girls’ and women’s sovereignty over their own bodies, are critical and essential for these rape victims.

But not all the women on the Pine Ridge Reservation agree; more significantly, the tribal council does not agree.  The council has issued a statement opposing abortion.  Women leaders in the tribe are calling for a vote on abortion and want the vote limited to women only.  They say that many women support Fire Thunder and would vote for her, but do not want to speak out now, given the intensity of the conflict.  According to the article:

Norma Rendon, who works in a domestic violence shelter run by the nonprofit Canleska Inc., spoke scornfully of the men, including some tribal council members who have been quoted in the local newspapers, for talking about women’s business.

”I may not be for abortion,” Rendon said. ”I had six children. I raised all six by myself without any kind of financial or emotional support. But I can’t make that choice for other women.”

Former tribal council member Deb Rooks-Cook, whose father was once tribal chairman, remembered calling on the council to take a stand against sexual violence 20 years ago.

But he told her not to expect any response. She remembered him saying, ”You’re talking to the perpetrators.”

…Fire Thunder said she is spending time in prayer and seeking guidance in anticipation of her June 30 impeachment hearing. She acknowledged that her term has been tumultuous, though other leaders say there are people who would criticize Fire Thunder for issues as innocuous as the color of shoes she might wear on a given day. 

…Fire Thunder said she was inspired to speak out against South Dakota’s abortion ban by Tex Hall, the former National Congress of the American Indian president, who in 1999 brought the organization’s first resolution against domestic violence. Fire Thunder remembered tears filling her eyes as Hall, in his customary cowboy hat and boots, expressed outrage over the abuse of women and children.

She was left with the belief that national Indian leaders must acknowledge abuse if communities are going to end it. More than that, she talks about the need for recognition of ”women’s sovereignty,” which is the right of women to make decisions for their own bodies.

”We’re in the middle of a quiet revolution,” Fire Thunder said. ”And it’s awful painful.”

Read the entire article here.

Many thanks to Rich Leader of Adonis Mirror for sending this link to me. 




4 thoughts on “Cecilia Fire Thunder and the Oglala Sioux Women’s Quiet Revolution: Sexual Abuse, Domestic Violence, Women’s Sovereignty

  1. I am paying close attention to Cecilia Fire Thunder’s expansive exercise of tribal sovereignty in response to the South Dakota abortion ban. Fire Thunder, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, asserts a tribal perspective at the state and national levels, showing that tribes have a great deal to offer to the national abortion debate. We need more tribal leaders who will assert political and cultural authority on pressing American issues.

    I want to raise a few points that I think all of us in Indian country should consider as we ponder Fire Thunder’s actions.

    More than two sides to abortion

    For those of us who do not subscribe to certain Christian doctrinal teachings, but who do subscribe to cultural imperatives about the sacredness of life, our moral and political response to terminating a pregnancy is not captured by either of the most vocal positions in the American abortion wars: the ”pro-choice” and ”pro-life” positions.

    My Dakota mother and great-grandmother, for example, did not let me forget the powerful potential of my body to bear children. I was taught that a child is sacred, and that an unwanted pregnancy was to be assiduously avoided through safe-sex practices and, when I was younger, through abstinence.

    My mother and great-grandmother never used the words ”choice” or ”rights,” but rather they spoke of ”power” and ”responsibility.” But my mother and great-grandmother also took a leap of faith that I would have the space to be responsible for my body – that I would not, for example, face rape.

    At the same time, I was raised with a politicized understanding of the world. Both women and men in my family and in our tribe endured their share of hardship, including sexual violence. I grew to understand that within a colonial context. Abortion, in that context, might be considered a sad but necessary decision.

    We differed from the ”pro-choice” position in that we spoke of this and all reproductive decisions not as a ”right” or a ”choice,” but as a responsibility that grew out of the power in women’s bodies. We differed from the ”pro-life” position in that we recognized that the decision could be shaped by the hardship and violence that haunt Indian people to this day. Our views about the sacred nature of the unborn child were not synonymous with fundamentalist Christian views. From my upbringing, I came to understand abortion as a difficult topic with only context-specific and imperfect solutions.

    An expansive exercise of tribal sovereignty

    In her vow to exercise tribal sovereignty and build a clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Fire Thunder foregrounds sexual violence. She uses the words ”choice” and ”rights,” but she also demonstrates an understanding that colonization has shaped the reality of abortion. South Dakota’s new law does not allow for exceptions in the case of rape and incest. Fire Thunder reminds the American public that Native women are subjected to sexual violence at a much higher rate than American women generally. Native and other rural women also lack access to decent health care and family planning alternatives. The result is a higher incidence of unwanted pregnancy.

    I see Fire Thunder’s response as not only about individual women’s rights to abortion, but also about the imperative that her tribal community exercises greater responsibility for American Indian life, broadly speaking, including the sacredness of the child and for the quality of that life. She also charges the state of South Dakota with its abortion ban of avoiding responsibility for attacking racism, colonization, sexism and poverty that make some women’s lives difficult in such a way that abortion becomes one of the only decisions they have left to make.

    Bringing tradition to the debate

    David Melmer’s April 2006 Indian Country Today article [”Oglala president takes center stage on women’s clinic,” Vol. 25, Iss. 43] noted that Fire Thunder brings ”traditional cultural attitudes to the forefront of the debate.” But Fire Thunder can’t do that alone. I hope that we in Indian country will use Fire Thunder’s leadership as a starting point for thoughtful discussion. How can our cultural and spiritual perspectives inform our response to the pressing issues of abortion, rape and the need for responsible family planning by both men and women?

    As I understand Fire Thunder, the Lakota care about their responsibilities to each other and to the Creator, yet those responsibilities have been shaped and sometimes distorted by the historical links among women, violence and colonization. Fire Thunder attempts to strike a balance in her analysis of abortion that responds to the particular realities of her community.

    She also unapologetically asserts the political sovereignty of the Oglala Lakota Nation to make its own decision about abortion law. Within that, she inserts a new idea into an ongoing national debate: traditional Lakota values and perspectives about kinship responsibilities and terminating pregnancy should inform tribal law and policy. Fire Thunder takes a step toward asserting a different kind of sovereignty, what Comanche Nation Chairman Wallace Coffey and American Indian legal scholar Rebecca Tsosie call cultural sovereignty.

    Thus Fire Thunder’s emergent national voice has the potential to offer us something different than the usual dichotomous positions on abortion. I hope that she and the people she represents will continue developing the cultural piece of that analysis.

    Depth of cultural analysis is important so that non-Natives do not detach Native perspectives from their nuanced, spiritual-political foundations in order to claim us for one side or another of the abortion wars.

    American Indian tribes need to maintain a sensitive balance. We must exercise political sovereignty by rejecting efforts by mostly white, male lawmakers to exercise regulatory authority as if we are not here.

    On the other side, we need to be careful that our particular cultural perspectives are not represented shallowly in support of a largely non-Native political agenda that does not necessarily respond to the priorities and values of Indian country.

    Kim TallBear, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, is an assistant professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. She is the daughter of LeeAnn TallBear and great-granddaughter of the late Agnes Dauphine-Heminger.


    Posted by womensspace | June 30, 2006, 3:55 pm
  2. reproductive responsibility?

    that is interesting.

    Posted by antiprincess | June 30, 2006, 4:04 pm
  3. I find it interesting that someone would find reproductive responsibility to be a novel idea. Along with rights goes responsibility. Responsibility is removed willy nilly when rights are removed.

    Posted by Branjor | July 1, 2006, 4:23 pm
  4. I just saw Cecelia on C span. I had two native grandparents. I was a bit shocked that she stated that the
    Ogalala constitution was based on the US constitution. The Iroquois Law of Man was introduced, oddly enough on July 4, 1744, to the first gathering of all representatives of the 13 colonies. It was translated and published by a printer named Ben Franklin. The US constitution was based on the Law of Man. We did not design our government like a European parliament, we modeled it after native government.

    Two of my playmates when I was young were starved and abused. My mother fought to defend their mother after she killed her husband to save my playmates. I have watched women abused since childhood. The victims are the ones judged. I am Catholic and I detest the thought of abortion. That is my religious and personal view of ethics. However, I know that putting a cop or judge between a woman and her doctor is wrong. The bible taught me that only God can judge another.

    Being pro life is making the world safe for mothers and their children and making a world where it is safe to bring children in the world. When I worked with Catholic charities I worked with a little girl who had been repeatedly spanked by her father, bare bottomed, with a butcher knife. This little girl had a beating heart, but she had no tools to live.

    If you are pro life, make a place for mothers, make a place for children that have no place in the world. The native Americans taught us that the government should be a limited government. Cecelia is carrying on a truly American tradition. God will bless her. If we create a safe world women won’t be put in a position to make such horrible choices. It is everyone’s responsibility to do this regardless of religion or origin.

    kc9hpp Bear Shirt

    Posted by Bear Shirt | October 17, 2006, 7:39 am

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